Monday, January 25, 2010


"GYPSIES" by Hablot Knight Browne

When I wrote my post "The Scottish Connection" I mentioned that my Scottish Great-Aunt Teenie used to love it when the tinkers came 'round, so that she could practice her Gaelic on them. Reading "5 Precious Things", the blog by my Scottish friend Ruthie, I came across the term tinkers again. Ruthie mentioned that she had read two books about these unique Scotsmen and women.

Fascinated, I decided to do some research on the tinkers and learned to my horror that they are a much-maligned segment of Scottish society. The first thing I learned is that "tinker" (tink/tinkie) is no longer an accepted term. In fact, it is pejorative and derogatory. So is gypsy or gypo, another label which has been falsely assigned to them. The very word tinker (also tinkler) is often commonly used to disparage someone of dirty appearance or untidy and antisocial habits. But contrary to popular belief, tinkers highly value cleanliness and have a definite moral code.

The confusion arises because there are actually more than a half dozen types of traveling people in Scotland, consisting of diverse, unrelated communities speaking a variety of different languages and holding to distinct customs, histories and traditions. (In using their titles I am going to continue with the Scottish spelling of "travellers" even though it bothers my American eye - and Spell Check doesn't like it either. My usage of the term "tinker" is meant to be very respectful).

The groups are the afore-mentioned Highland Scottish Travellers, Lowland Scottish Travellers, Irish Travellers, Border Gypsies, Fairground Travellers, New Age Travellers, and the Roma Gypsies (or Romany/Romanichal).

The New Age group is self explanatory. The Fairground Travellers (also called Fun Fair Travelers or Showmen) move around with carnivals and fairs and would probably equate with what we derogatorily call "carnies" in America. The Roma are members of a tribe that originated in Northern India long ago and spread throughout all of Europe. They are the traditional Gypsies, a shortening of the misnomer Egyptians.

Highland Scottish Travellers of old

Highland Scottish Travellers, while perhaps one of Europe's last nomadic people, are not Roma Gypsies. They are distinct from them ethnically, culturally and linguistically. They are indigenous, Gaelic-speaking people.  In Scottish Gaelic they are known as the Ce├árdannan ("the Craftsmen"). The word tinker itself comes from the Gaelic "tinceard" or tinsmith. Poetically known as the Summer Walkers, they also are referred to as traivellers, traivellin' fowk and nawkers.  

Summer Walkers are closely associated with the Northwest Highlands, and many of the families carry clan names like Macfie, Stewart, MacDonald, Cameron, Williamson and Macmillan. They would pitch their bow tents at the edge of villages and earn money there as tinsmiths, hawkers, horse dealers or pearl fishermen. Many found seasonal employment on farms, e.g. at berry picking or during harvest. They also brought entertainment and news to the country folk.

The Highland Scottish Traveller community has a long history in Scotland with records going back to the 12th century. They share a similar heritage with, although distinct from, the Irish Travellers. As with their Irish counterparts, there are several theories regarding the origin of Scottish Highland Travellers, one being that they are descended from the Picts. Other theories are that they were excommunicated clergy, or families fleeing the Highland potato famine or the pre-Norman-Invasion.

Tinkers in front of their traditional bow tent

Tinkers were a vital part of the rural scene of the past. In the early years of the 20th century they were a familiar sight in the Highlands. Traveling in small family groups, they roamed both the highways and the back roads, sometimes with ponies and carts to carry their gear, often with handcarts, sometimes wheeling their worldly goods in old-fashioned prams. Dogs trotted at the tail of the carts and were lifted up beside the bairns (babies) when they were tired.

The tinkers' camps were to be seen in sheltered spots throughout the glens and straths. They knew the terrain as intimately as town dwellers know their local high street, particularly which houses would give them a welcome and which houses should be avoided.

The menfolk repaired pots and pans and made horn spoons, willow baskets and clothes pegs for their wives to sell. In addition to seasonal work on the farms, many dealt in scrap iron, and a few fished the rivers for fresh water pearls to sell. The women peddled, or hawked,  their wares - household goods and crafts.

Caption reads Colin {and} Clementine MacDonald -
traditional family who follow the whelks
Spring to Autumn from Angus to West Highlands

Scottish Travellers have a secret cant, or language, the Beialrearich, which has never been written down. It is a complex mixture of Scots and Gaelic, some of it archaic, with a sprinkling of Romany. This allows the tinkers to switch nimbly to cant in the presence of even Gaelic-speaking strangers, a skill that was useful when they were questioned about suspected theft or poaching.

Sadly, all traveling people have been given a bad reputation, thanks to some of their number. True Scottish Highland Travellers were often erroneously perceived to be thieves, liars, shysters, con men, beggers, fortune tellers and the like. Country folk often projected their fear of "gypsies" into tales of how they kidnapped children.

In a horrifying reversal of this, tinkers believed that they were perpetually threatened, young and old alike, by the prospect of abduction to the dissecting rooms of medical schools. Stories were told of relatives who had unaccountably disappeared, said to have been snatched by the "noddies", top-hatted medical students who drove the black "burkers" (doctors') coaches through the countryside at night in search of their prey. It is little wonder that the tinkers refused to leave their old people and children unattended when in the hospital.

Certainly Scotland has not always been kind to tinkers, leaving them suspicious not only of hospitals but also of wary of strangers and officials. Under 17th Century Scottish law, to be a gypsy was a capital crime punishable by hanging! "Egyptians" were ordered to "quit the realm within thirty days on pain of death". The famous outlaw and fiddler James MacPherson was executed under this statute.

Even when free from all hints of reproach, the name tinker signifies people whose way of life makes them outsiders. A contributory factor to their isolation is the Scottish climate, which is less than suitable for a nomadic lifestyle because of its harsh winters and unpredictable rain and wind at any season of the year. 

Some photos I found did not distinguish between
different types of Scottish travelers. With their gaily
decorated "Gypsy" wagon, these women may be Roma.

Recent changes in the economic structure of society have made both the tinkers' old way of life, and their ability to earn a traditional living, more difficult. Rural depopulation means that there are fewer houses at which to call, while the housewives' reliance on mass-produced goods has killed off many of the traditional tinkers' crafts.

Since the 1950s, other aspects of modern life have forced rapid changes on the travelling community. Tin smithing is a dead art, horse dealing a thing of the past, hawking is now done by catalog and supermarket. The majority of Scottish Highland Travellers have settled down into organized campsites or regular houses. They may still travel the roads today, but in smaller numbers and usually in vans and trucks, or what the British call caravans and we in the U.S. call travel trailers and RVs.

As early as WWI some traveling families were beginning to settle for the winter in rented rooms, taking to the road in the spring and returning each autumn so that the children could clock up the obligatory 200 half-day attendances at school. However, most families preferred their tents to what was often substandard housing, and many of the older generation still do.

Many older Travellers were brought up on the road and still remember in detail the traditional, archetypal lifestyle of Scotland's nomadic clans. Some have written books about this lifestyle. Here are the two books by and about Scottish Travellers that Ruthie mentioned in her blog:

"The Yellow on the Broom: The Early Days 
of a Traveller Woman " by Betsy Whyte

Betsy Whyte was born into a family of travellers who roamed the Scottish countryside between the wars. Whyte has been called a terrific storyteller and her recollection of her childhood has been described as vivid. Two later books make up her trilogy of the Travellers' way of life.

"Jessie's Journey: Autobiography of a
Traveller Girl" by Jess Smith

From the ages of 5 to 15, Jess Smith lived with her parents, sisters and a mongrel dog in an old blue bus. They traveled the length and breadth of Scotland, and much of England too.

Here's a link to other books about other Scottish tinkers:

While Whyte and Smith put their stories in writing, other Scottish Highland Travellers have played an essential role in the preservation of traditional oral Gaelic culture. Their outstanding contribution to Highland life has been as custodians of an ancient and vital singing, storytelling and folklore tradition of great importance.

In the last 50 years folklorists have recorded a large number of tinker ballads, songs and folk tales. Many tinker men are accomplished pipers, whose skill adds to the family income. The folk song revival movement thrust a handful of Traveller singers and storytellers into an unexpected limelight.

It is estimated that only 2,000 Scottish travellers continue to lead their traditional lifestyle on the roads. They are still being fiercely discriminated against today. Those familiar with the Travellers detect an underlying sense of persecution and despair among these people who cherish the traditional ways and values of their forefathers.

Scottish Travellers at the famous
Aikey Brae Fair, Aberdeenshire, 1906

Tuesday, January 19, 2010


A Highland Croft by Sherry Massey (Sorry scan is
lopsided. In real life everything is perfectly straight!)

Some months ago, I had seen a drawing done by blogger Sherry Massey of "Of Mice and Men and Cabbages and Kings" of a lovely Irish cottage. I asked her if she would do one of a Scottish croft, or cottage, that is a favorite among my Munro family photos. Dear sweet Sherry did this for me, free of charge. I love it all, especially the detailed work she did, such as on the thatched roof, the stone wall on the right, and the Munro tartan border. And note that she added the name Munro above the doorway! It is a drawing that I will treasure forever!

My maternal grandfather, Duncan Munro,
not long after his arrival in Canada.

Those you who have read my blog regularly know I am fanatic about my family history. After writing posts about my maternal grandmother's roots in Norway, and several posts about my maternal great uncles who were killed in WWI, I was told by readers that I am very lucky indeed to have as much information and as many photos as I do of my ancestors and their relatives.

I now realize that our family is truly blessed to have the knowledge that we do. For it's not just my side of the family. Dan knows his maternal grandmother Sudie Sheppard's family history all the way back to North Carolina and Virginia in the 1700s. (I joke to Dan and Kristen that they are descendants of Johnny Rebs.) Kristen could join the DAR but I can't. My people weren't even in the country at the time!

When I am finished working on it, Kristen's family tree will have many limbs. Only two branches have been truncated: that of my Irish paternal grandmother, Hazel Joanna Cody, and Dan's paternal grandfather, Hans Fredericksen.

Hazel Cody's family has been traced back to John and Bridget Cody, born in Southern Ireland in the 1830s. There, the trail ends, and I'm not the least bit surprised. For how many John and Bridget Codys were born in Southern Ireland, County Unknown, in the 1830s?

As for Hans, he had a shady past as a cattle rustler in North Dakota. Dan's Dad was ashamed of him and cut all ties to him, making it difficult to trace his ancestors.

Yes, we are blessed. But it is not luck. It is through the determination and hard work of our relatives that our genealogical records are so complete. A distant cousin of Dan's researched the Sheppard family. On my mother's side, my cousin Kevin has been searching the Norwegian Wangens and my Scottish second cousin Shirley has done a tremendous job searching the Munros. On my biological father's side, my second Cousin Mark has done the work on the Rockey-Cody families.

Grandpa Duncan in his military uniform

My collection is the most complete on the Munro side. So here I present some photos of my relatives from the Highlands of Scotland (some owned by my mom's family, some provided by Shirl) all the while thanking the powers that be that I have them.

Above, my Grandfather Duncan Munro in his "The Sun Never Sets on the British Empire" uniform, complete with sword and kepi helmet. Far from a romantic posting in India, Duncan was safely ensconced in Canada. This exotic-looking uniform is actually that of the much tamer Canadian Rifles. Duncan immigrated to Canada before the outbreak of WWI. As he put it in a much later newspaper interview, he had joined up and was chafing to go off to war when the conflict ended.

My Scottish Great-Grandmother, Hughina Munro

I have to say, Hughina looks like a sweetie, the quintessential grandmotherly figure. She lived to be 95 years old. After her husband died she was left to raise 10 children alone. She lived until 1951, two years after I was born. I don't know if she knew of the existence of an American great-granddaughter, Duncan having died two years before.

My Great-Grandfather, William Munro, for whom no photo exists, was a shepherd known as Willie Go Slow, because of the asthma which restricted his physical activities and led to an early death.

Christina Isabella ("Teenie") Munro Clinton

I love the fact that I know about my great-grandfather's nickname. I love the fact that I know my Great Uncle Donald Munro ran away from home. Charged with herding sheep, Donald abandoned them and stowed away on a boat bound away from Scotland, leaving the sheep to the two sheepherding dogs. All had to all be rounded up when Donald's absence was noticed. Supposedly he went to Canada, but all trace of him vanishes after that.

I love the fact that I know that Great Aunt "Teenie" (shown above) loved it when the tinkers (itinerant peddlers/tinsmiths) came 'round so that she could practice her Gaelic on them.  Really, it's just a couple of generations removed from the time when my ancestors spoke Gaelic!

Golspie Football (Soccer) Team
William Munro is second from right in rear

As I mentioned before, I have written extensively about my three great uncles who died in or as a result of the Great War. But before the war, they had quite ordinary lives. Above, a photo of my Great Uncle William's football (soccer) team. What a tall, dark and handsome guy he was. Like myself, he was a journalist. Unlike myself, he was a terrific athlete.

John Alexander "Jack" Munro

I have often lauded Jack, a certified, genuine war hero who was posthumously awarded the British Military Cross for his many acts of gallantry. But before he entered the war, he too, was an athletic, handsome young man about to taste all the fruits life had to offer.


Jack's Grace

While I've written lots about Jack, I have neglected to write about Jack's Grace. That's what I call her: "Jack's Grace". This photo was found among Jack's effects. It's signed "Ever Yours, Grace". That sounds like quite the commitment to me. Was this jaunty, sporty, Highland girl with the dog and the braids Jack's sweetheart? Would she and Jack have been married had he survived the war? Among all photos in the Munro collection, this one is the most bittersweet to me.

In fact, I have in general neglected to write about the female side of the Munro family in favor of the male side. I hope to recifty that now. How could I leave out Archie's Grace? Yes, another Grace. Grace Williamson Fowler of Edinburgh, married to my Great Uncle Archie. They had immigrated to Canada and already had several children before Archie went off to war and was gassed and captured as a German POW. After he was repatriated and sent to Switzerland to recover, Grace joined him there.

"Archie's Grace" and children

Archie barely survived. After a recovery period in Switzerland and later in Edinburgh, he and Grace moved to the United States. Sadly, Archie died in Chicago in 1921, the same year the youngest of his six children was born.  Grace had to finish raising the children herself, just as my Great Grandmother Hughina had had to do.

Elsie ("Eppie") Munro Morrison Kidd

How I adore this photo of Great Aunt Eppie. Because I assumed the pedestal beside her was a trunk, I always picture her as the confident, experienced world traveler off to visit the Continent!

Jessie Mackenzie Munro Watters

And Great Aunt Jessie - somehow I feel the most kinship with this female member of the family, perhaps because she is so obviously intent on reading in this photo. She looks very neat and scholarly!

Mary  Munro Mackay

Great Aunt Mary Munro Mackay was another of my grandpa's sisters, and grandmother of my dear Scottish second cousin Shirley Sutherland, who sent me most of these pictures and all the info on the Scottish Munros. Another link I have to this Mary Munro is my late Aunt Mary Munro of Crosby, ND, obviously named after Duncan's beloved sister. 

Elizabeth "Betsy" Angusina Munro
(A cutout of the photo below)

As you can see, Betsy's middle name was Angusina. She and my Great-Grandmother may have been named after an Angus and a Hugh, but I don't know if -ina was pronounced "EYEnuh" or "EEnuh". Since I had an aunt named Ina (pronounced "EYEnuh) I lean toward the former.

My Grandpa Duncan and Grandma Julia had seven children: William Alexander, Donald Cameron, Myrtle Opal (my mom), Robert James, Mary Elaine, Ina Mae and David Allan. Obviously, it was their Scottish father, not their Norwegian mother, who named the children.

Since I grew up in a Norwegian community, I savor these names, such a wonderful (in my mind) contrast with the Oles and Svens, Lars and Ingas I was surrounded by. I also relish the names of my earlier Scottish forbears: MacKay, MacDonald, MacKenzie, Sutherland, Falconer, Campbell, Ross. So different from the Johnsons, Larsons, Olsons and Swensons in our community.

I admit it. I'm just besotted with my Scottish ancestors.

And here it is, full circle, the croft that inspired Sherry Massey's painting. I told Sherry that she could leave the people off and I think that she was very relieved to do so! The people in the photo are Betsy's sons Donald and Alick on the left with dog Minto in front, Betsy, her husband Alex Mackay (called Daddo in the photo) and son William on the right.

(P. S. Everytime I look at this photo I think that the roof is on fire - see top right - but it must not have been, noting the calm demeanor and expressions of everyone in the photo, a lack of concern certainly shared by the photographer!)

Wednesday, January 13, 2010


"BY THE FIRESIDE" by Henry Salem Hubbel

I'm going to come right out and admit that I purloined the painting above and the poem below from my blogging friend Rowan in England ("Circle of the Year" on my sidebar). Both come straight from her recent post.

"Oh Winter! ruler of th’ inverted year,
Thy scatter’d hair with sleet like ashes fill’d,
Thy breath congeal’d upon thy lips, thy cheeks
Fring’d with a beard made white with other snows
Than those of age; thy forehead wrapt in clouds,
A leafless branch thy sceptre, and thy throne
A sliding car, indebted to no wheels,
But urg’d by storms along its slipp’ry way;

I love thee, all unlovely as thou seem’st,
And dreaded as thou art! Thou hold’st the sun
A pris’ner in the yet undawning East,
Short’ning his journey between morn and noon,
And hurrying him, impatient of his stay,
Down to the rosy West; but kindly still
Compensating his loss with added hours
Of social converse and instructive ease,

And gathering at short notice, in one group,
The family dispers’d, and fixing thought,
Not less dispers’d by day-light and its cares.
I crown thee King of intimate delights,
Fire-side enjoyments, home-born happiness,
And all the comforts that the lowly roof
Of undisturb’d retirement, and the hours
Of long uninterrupted evening, know.

~ William Cowper

I've said it before - winter is difficult for me. My SAD (seasonal affective disorder) begins to descend upon me in November (sometimes even October). It retreats in December, pushed back by Christmas Everywhere with its family gatherings, colored lights glowing against the snow, carols, parties and sundry other entertainments, lovely foods and general merriment.

But it comes raging back in January along with the Alberta Clippers pushing and howling out of the Great White North. Certainly, I do admire winter less than William Cowper, who loved it "all unlovely as thou seem’st, And dreaded as thou art."

I loveth thee not, winter. I loveth not the refusal of cars to start, nor being snowbound, nor the policeman at the door saying our vehicle will be towed if not moved. I loveth not the cost of a new battery, nor nump, nipped cheeks, nor the note from the postman saying "Thou must shovel thy sidewalks".

I loveth not the dread'd cabin fever, nor the freezing of the nostril hairs at -30 degrees, nor the knuckle-whitening drives through blizzards. I loveth not the heart-bursting exertion of pushing cars out of snowdrifts, nor the attenuat'd days, nor my gnashings and wailings of despair in the dark morns.

I loveth not the patio door jamm'd with snow, nor the walking across the ice like unto a Chinese lady with bound feet, nor the monstrous fuel bill. I loveth not the waiting for a frigid car to warm up, nor looking like the Michelin Man in coat, underlayers, boots, hats, gloves, scarves.

I loveth not my dry scaly hands, nor snifflings and sneezings and hackings, nor frozen wet feet.
But Mr. Cowper, thou art right about winter being The King of Intimate Delights. So to copeth with raw, most unkind winter, I have been seeking out thy fire-side enjoyments and home-born happiness, and all the comforts of my lowly roof.

I ease my feet into cashmere socks. I wear said socks to bed. I drink spiced tea or hot chocolate with marshmallows. I fuel my body with rib-sticking oatmeal and brown sugar. I savor soups of many flavors. We sup on hearty chili, stews and roasts. I wrap up in afghans and throws. I light candles to create warm pools of light.

For entertainment if confined to home - alone -  I choose quality music (classical) and reject network TV for quality DVDs. (However, I will be traveling to the island of "Lost" in February.)

I watch the black-capped chickadees climb up and down our grey-barked elm. I snuggle up to my little doggy furnace, Gracie. I nurse one venti mocha at Barnes and Noble.  I measure the slow lengthening of days.

I admire the tracery of Jack Frost on the windows (a sign of most extreme weather). I glory in frost-covered trees against the blue sky. I sift and toss papers at my leisure. I sort and throw, or set aside to sell on e-Bay. I go shopping in the basement (things that have been put away for a few years take on a fresh, new life.)

I wear warm flannel jammies all day Sunday, bringing books and newspapers to the comforter-clad bed. I take calcium and Vitamin D. I try to get at least a bit of sun a day. I read and read, and read some more. I write book reviews and posts.

I take great joy in the knowledge that the weather will be in the 30s and 40s for the next seven days at least!


Any more tips for not just getting through winter but enjoying it? Yes, I should go to the mall and walk, but I seldom have the use of my car these days, and walking on slippery sidewalks is not advised for a person who has fallen twice on dry sidewalks and injured herself (badly bruised knee and fractured elbow.)

Monday, January 4, 2010


With the wisdom of age, I no longer make New Year's resolutions, or only ones that I know I can not only aspire to but easily fulfill. This year I made only one resolution: to post about a book in my book blog ("Julie's Bookshelf") before I begin the next one!

So far I am doing smashingly well.  I bought "The Elegance of the Hedgehog" by Muriel Barbery with my Christmas gift card last Wednesday, and finished it New Year's Day, so I'm counting it as the first book for 2010.

I used to review books in this blog, "Celtic Lady", but quit after I started my book blog ( However, I thought I would post the review for "Elegance" here as well, mainly because I think it's a book everyone should read, but also because my poor little book blog is lonely and forlorn, un-visited and unloved.

I had heard about "The Elegance of the Hedgehog" through Cornflower's Book Blog (link on my sidebar). From her I learned that readers are very divided about this book, either loving it or hating it. Those who didn't care for it had two major complaints: that the main characters were snobbish, elitist and unlikable, and that the book itself was too intellectual, too philosophical, boring even.

Although I am a smart, quite well-educated person, I do not consider myself an intellectual, and am, in fact, put off by the yammering of self-important intellectuals. (I think of a girl at school named Blatherwick whom my friends and I called Blatheralot). I was a bit intimidated too: afraid to buy the book and let myself in for philosophical treatises too deep for me. But the glowing descriptions of those who liked the book tipped the balance. And "The Elegance of the Hedgehog" turned out to be one of the best books I have read in a long time. I know I will be reading it again and again.

The two major characters are Renee Michel, the apparently sterotypical concierce of a Parisian apartment building, and 12-year-old Paloma Josse, who lives in the building with her family. Both are stunningly intelligent but - for reasons that will ultimately be revealed - each chooses to hide her intellectual light under a bushel basket of anonymity.

Renee, a 54-year-old widow, is known only as Mme. Michel to the tenants. They have no idea that behind closed doors Madame is vastly unlike her public persona of the dowdy, grumpy concierge. Rather than sitting glued to mind-numbing television, Renee, an autodidact, listens to classical music, reads philosophy and watches DVDs of Japanese films.

Precocious Paloma is world-weary and disillusioned. Her parents, sister, schoolmates and teachers have no idea of the depths of her still waters. Perhaps too well read and too informed for her tender age, Paloma has come to the conclusion that life is not worth living. She plans to commit suicide and burn down the apartment building on her upcoming 13th birthday.

The arrival of a new tenant in the building - the extremely perceptive Japanese businessman and aesthete Kakuro Ozu - is the catalyst that brings Paloma and Renee together, lifts Renee out of her self-spun cocoon and gives Paloma an abiding reason to live.

Rather than finding them snobbish and offputting, I loved Renee and Paloma immediately. Perhaps it's because I was and am still in many ways a misfit that I identified with them so. I found the philosophical discussions to be intriguing and sailed through them fairly well, finding only Chapter 2 under "Paloma" a bit daunting. But to balance out that chapter is Chapter 11 under "Summer Rain" that begins "What is the purpose of art?" and ends with this sublime sentence: "For art is emotion without desire."

The language of "Hedgehog" is glorious throughout. Through the character of Paloma, Barbery writes, "Pity the poor in spirit who know neither the enchantment nor the beauty of language." For those who recognize it, the enchantment and beauty of language are on every page of "Hedgehog". For example, this paragraph which ends a description of a summer rain:

"Just as teardrops, when they are large and round and compassionate, can leave a long strand washed clean of discord, the summer rain as it washes away the motionless dust can bring to a person's soul something like endless breathing."

Or this:

"In the split second when I saw the stem and the bud drop to the counter I intuited the essence of beauty....Because beauty consists of its own passing, just as we reach for it. It's the ephemeral configuration of things in the moment, when you can see both their beauty and their death."

If you're wondering about the title, it's Paloma's description of Renee: "Mme. Michele has the elegance of the hedgehog: on the outside, she's covered with quills, a real fortress, but my gut feeling is that on the inside, she has the same simple refinement as the hedgehog: a deceptively indolent little creature, fiercely solitary - and terribly elegant."